The language of cancer

languageRecently I attended the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Support Conference where the key-note address was given by inspirational speaker, Chris Moon. Chris, who is a double amputee and former army officer discussed the best way of dealing with worry and negativity by being positive and making the best of everything. While I greatly admire what Chris has achieved and found his speech inspirational, it also got me thinking about societal expectations of cancer patients to be upbeat, stoic and positive all the time when often the reality is that people with cancer are not always feeling quite so upbeat. Instead feelings of fear, sadness, loss and depression can dog their footsteps. Recently, we saw that fear and pain in Jade Goody’s eyes and while it was uncomfortable to watch at times, this too is the reality of cancer.

I felt pressure to show the sunny side in order to reassure anxious relatives and friends and even those not so close to me; a pressure to show how well I was handling my cancer. Now there were many times when I did genuinely feel positive and I actively worked on that side, but at times, my smile did not always reflect my true emotional state.

So my question is, does that upbeat, bravely battling cancer face shown to us (often by high-profile cancer patients) really inspire us or does it merely reinforce unrealistic expectations that everyone should approach cancer with stoicism and courage.  I suppose it is a little of both. It can inspire but at other times, it can feel like you are not living up to what society expects of you as a person who has cancer.

Does the well-meaning advice of others, such as “you gotta think positive” or “you’re strong – you can beat this”  help or hinder? Does it lead to the tyranny of positive thinking and make some cancer patients feel like they are letting themselves and others down by not acting this way? And what of the school of thought which claims that positive thinking can actually cure cancer and conversely that your negativity or hopelessness is a contributing cause of the disease. How much damage has that done? While I believe a sense of hope is vital, a pressure to feel positive all the time can also be damaging if it doesn’t allow the person to truly confront their fears.  Don’t deny your feelings and don’t hide them on those days when a Positive Mental Attitude eludes you.

My final observation is that the very words we use to describe dealing with cancer have become infected with connotations of suffering and war . One of the words often used in the media to describe someone with cancer is a “cancer victim” or someone who is “suffering from cancer”. Well I never saw myself as a victim and I am not alone in that. In this regard I am fully behind Chris Moon who claims his mantra is “never assume the role of the victim”.  The connotations of suffering do not sit well with me either. If we talk of metaphors as describing reality, then they can also create reality and calling someone a victim or sufferer does no favours to anyone.

The war analogy places the emphasis on cancer as a battle  and the cancer patient, a warrior bravely fighting the disease. Again, this metaphor may be perfect for some, while for others it makes them feel inadequate if they think they are not brave enough or strong enough to fight. And how often do we see the words “lost their fight with cancer” or a “fight bravely borne”, when reading about the death of someone from cancer. It assumes that death is a failure and precludes the notion that often at the end, the person has made peace with their death.

That is why I prefer to use the term cancer journey, rather than battle. While acknowledging that battle may suit some, the analogy of being on a journey, with all its twists and turns, uphills and downhills, crossroads and u-turns is one I am most comfortable with. On a journey there are no winners or losers, it is a passage or progress from one stage to another and however you feel on that journey is the way you are feeling. There is no right or wrong way to feel or to be. There is no pre-written script for the cancer journey and you are free to write your own script based on your own story and that to me is a wonderfully liberating concept.

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